Next up for patterns: type patterns in switch

Brian Goetz brian.goetz at
Wed Jun 24 14:44:05 UTC 2020

There are a lot of directions we could take next for pattern matching.  
The one that builds most on what we've already done, and offers 
significant incremental expressiveness, is extending the type patterns 
we already have to a new context: switch.  (There is still plenty of 
work to do on deconstruction patterns, pattern assignment, etc, but 
these require more design work.)

Here's an overview of where I think we are here.

[JEP 305][jep305] introduced the first phase of [pattern 
into the Java language.  It was deliberately limited, focusing on only 
one kind
of pattern (type test patterns) and one linguistic context (`instanceof`).
Having introduced the concept to Java developers, we can now extend both the
kinds of patterns and the linguistic context where patterns are used.

## Patterns in switch

The obvious next context in which to introduce pattern matching is 
`switch`;  a
switch using patterns as `case` labels can replace `if .. else if` 
chains with
a more direct way of expressing a multi-way conditional.

Unfortunately, `switch` is one of the most complex, irregular constructs 
we have
in Java, so we must teach it some new tricks while avoiding some 
existing traps.
Such tricks and traps may include:

**Typing.**  Currently, the operand of a `switch` may only be one of the
integral primitive types, the box type of an integral primitive, 
`String`, or an
`enum` type.  (Further, if the `switch` operand is an `enum` type, the 
labels must be _unqualified_ enum constant names.)  Clearly we can relax 
restriction to allow other types, and constrain the case labels to only be
patterns that are applicable to that type, but it may leave a seam of 
vs "pattern" switch, especially if we do not adopt bare constant literals as
the denotation of constant patterns.  (We have confronted this issue 
before with
expression switch, and concluded that it was better to rehabilitate the 
we have rather than create a new construct, and we will make the same choice
here, but the cost of this is often a visible seam.)

**Parsing.**  The grammar currently specifies that the operand of a 
`case` label
is a `CaseConstant`, which casts a wide syntactic net, later narrowed with
post-checks after attribution.  This means that, since parsing is done 
before we
know the type of the operand, we must be watchful for ambiguities between
patterns and expressions (and possibly refine the production for `case` 

**Nullity.**  The `switch` construct is currently hostile to `null`, but 
patterns do match `null`, and it may be desirable if nulls can be handled
within a suitably crafted `switch`.

**Exhaustiveness.**  For switches over the permitted subtypes of sealed 
we will want to be able to do exhaustiveness analysis -- including for 
patterns (i.e., if `Shape`  is `Circle` or `Rect`, then `Box(Circle c)` and
`Box(Rect r)` are exhaustive on `Box<Shape>`.)

**Fallthrough.**  Fallthrough is everyone's least favorite feature of 
but it exists for a reason.  (The mistake was making fallthrough the default
behavior, but that ship has sailed.)  In the absence of an OR pattern
combinator, one might find fallthrough in switch useful in conjunction with

case Box(int x):
case Bag(int x):
     // use x

However, it is likely that we will, at least initially, disallow falling out
of, or into, a case label with binding variables.

#### Translation

Switches on primitives and their wrapper types are translated using the
`tableswitch` or `lookupswitch` bytecodes; switches on strings and enums are
lowered in the compiler to switches involving hash codes (for strings) or
ordinals (for enums.)

For switches on patterns, we would need a new strategy, one likely built on
`invokedynamic`, where we lower the cases to a densely numbered `int` 
and then invoke a classifier function with the operand which tells us 
the first
case number it matches.  So a switch like:

switch (o) {
     case P: A
     case Q: B

is lowered to:

int target = indy[BSM=PatternSwitch, args=[P,Q]](o)
switch (target) {
     case 0: A
     case 1: B

A symbolic description of the patterns is provided as the bootstrap argument
list, which builds a decision tree based on analysis of the patterns and 
target types.

#### Guards

No matter how rich our patterns are, it is often the case that we will want
to provide additional filtering on the results of a pattern:

if (shape instanceof Cylinder c && c.color() == RED) { ... }

Because we use `instanceof` as part of a boolean expression, it is easy to
narrow the results by conjoining additional checks with `&&`.  But in a 
label, we do not necessarily have this opportunity.  Worse, the semantics of
`switch` mean that once a `case` label is selected, there is no way to say
"oops, forget it, keep trying from the next label".

It is common in languages with pattern matching to support some form of 
expression, which is a boolean expression that conditions whether the case
matches, such as:

case Point(var x, var y)
     __where x == y: ...

Bindings from the pattern would have to be available in guard expressions.

Syntactic options (and hazards) for guards abound; users would probably 
find it
natural to reuse `&&` to attach guards to patterns; C# has chosen `when` for
introducing guards; we could use `case P if (e)`, etc.  Whatever we do here,
there is a readability risk,  as the more complex guards are, the harder 
it is
to tell where the case label ends and the "body" begins.  (And worse if 
we allow
switch expressions inside guards.)

An alternate to guards is to allow an imperative `continue` statement in
`switch`, which would mean "keep trying to match from the next label."  
the existing semantics of `continue`, this is a natural extension, but since
`continue` does not currently have meaning for switch, some work would 
have to
be done to disambiguate continue statements in switches enclosed in 
loops.  The
imperative version is strictly more expressive than most reasonable 
forms of the
declarative version, but users are likely to prefer the declarative version.

## Nulls

Almost no language design exercise is complete without some degree of 
with `null`.  As we define more complex patterns than simple type 
patterns, and
extend constructs such as `switch` (which have existing opinions about 
to support patterns, we need to have a clear understanding of which patterns
are nullable, and separate the nullity behaviors of patterns from the 
behaviors of those constructs which use patterns.

## Nullity and patterns

This topic has a number of easily-tangled concerns:

  - **Construct nullability.**  Constructs to which we want to add pattern
    awareness (`instanceof`, `switch`) already have their own opinion about
    nulls.  Currently, `instanceof` always says false when presented with a
    `null`, and `switch` always NPEs.  We may, or may not, wish to 
refine these
    rules in some cases.
  - **Pattern nullability.**  Some patterns clearly would never match `null`
    (such as deconstruction patterns), whereas others (an "any" pattern, and
    surely the `null` constant pattern) might make sense to match null.
  - **Refactoring friendliness.**  There are a number of cases that we 
would like
    to freely refactor back and forth, such as certain chains of `if ... 
else if`
    with switches.
  - **Nesting vs top-level.**  The "obvious" thing to do at the top 
level of a
    construct is not always the "obvious" thing to do in a nested construct.
  - **Totality vs partiality.**  When a pattern is partial on the 
operand type
    (e.g., `case String` when the operand of switch is `Object`), it is 
    never the case we want to match null (except in the case of the `null`
    constant pattern), whereas when a pattern is total on the operand 
type (e.g.,
    `case Object` in the same example), it is more justifiable to match 
  - **Inference.**  It would be nice if a `var` pattern were simply 
inference for
    a type pattern, rather than some possibly-non-denotable union.

As a starting example, consider:

record Box(Object o) { }

Box box = ...
switch (box) {
     case Box(Chocolate c):
     case Box(Frog f):
     case Box(var o):

It would be highly confusing and error-prone for either of the first two
patterns to match `Box(null)` -- given that `Chocolate` and `Frog` have 
no type
relation, it should be perfectly safe to reorder the two.  But, because 
the last
pattern seems so obviously total on boxes, it is quite likely that what the
author wants is to match all remaining boxes, including those that 
contain null.
(Further, it would be terrible if there were _no_ way to say "Match any 
even if it contains `null`.  (While one might initially think this could be
repaired with OR patterns, imagine that `Box` had _n_ components -- we'd 
need to
OR together _2^n_ patterns, with complex merging, to express all the 
combinations of nullity.))

Scala and C# took the approach of saying that "var" patterns are not 
just type
inference, they are "any" patterns -- so `Box(Object o)` matches boxes
containing a non-null payload, where `Box(var o)` matches all boxes.  This
means, unfortunately, that `var` is not mere type inference -- which 
the role of `var` in the language considerably.  Users should not have 
to choose
between the semantics they want and being explicit about types; these 
should be
orthogonal choices.  The above `switch` should be equivalent to:

Box box = ...
switch (box) {
     case Box(Chocolate c):
     case Box(Frog f):
     case Box(Object o):

and the choice to use `Object` or `var` should be solely one of whether the
manifest types are deemed to improve or impair readability.

#### Construct and pattern nullability

Currently, `instanceof` always says `false` on `null`, and `switch` always
throws on `null`.  Whatever null opinions a construct has, these are applied
before we even test any patterns.

We can formalize the intuition outlined above as: type patterns that are 
on their target operand (`var x`, and `T t` on an operand of type `U`, 
where `U
<: T`) match null, and non-total type patterns do not. (Another way to say
this is: a `var` pattern is the "any" pattern, and a type pattern that 
is  total
on its operand type is also an "any" pattern.)  Additionally, the `null`
constant pattern matches null.  These are the _only_ nullable patterns.

In our `Box` example, this means that the last case (whether written as 
o)` or `Box(Object o)`) matches all boxes, including those containing null
(because the nested pattern is total on the nested operand), but the 
first two
cases do not.

If we retain the current absolute hostility of `switch` to nulls, we can't
trivially refactor from

switch (o) {
     case Box(Chocolate c):
     case Box(Frog f):
     case Box(var o):

switch (o) {
     case Box(var contents):
         switch (contents) {
             case Chocolate c:
             case Frog f:
             case Object o:

because the inner `switch(contents)` would NPE before we tried to match 
any of
the patterns it contains.  Instead, the user would explicitly have to do 
an `if
(contents == null)` test, and, if the intent was to handle `null` in the 
way as the `Object o` case, some duplication of code would be needed.  
We can
address this sharp corner by slightly relaxing the null-hostility of 
as described below.

A similar sharp corner is the decomposition of a nested pattern `P(Q)` into
`P(alpha) & alpha instanceof Q`; while this is intended to be a universally
valid transformation, if P's 1st component might be null and Q is 
total,  this
transformation would not be valid because of the existing (mild) 
of `instanceof`.  Again, we may be able to address this by adjusting the 
surrounding `instanceof` slightly.

## Generalizing switch

The refactoring example above motivates why we might want to relax the
null-handling behavior of `switch`.  On the other hand, the one thing the
current behavior has going for it is that at least the current behavior 
is easy
to reason about; it always throws when confronted with a `null`.  Any 
behavior would be more complex; some switches would still have to throw (for
compatibility with existing semantics), and some (which can't be expressed
today) would accept nulls.  This is a tricky balance to achieve, but I 
think we
have a found a good one.

A starting point is that we don't want to require readers to do an _O(n)_
analysis of each of the `case` labels just to determine whether a given 
accepts `null` or not; this should be an _O(1)_ analysis.  (We do not 
want to
introduce a new flavor of `switch`, such as `switch-nullable`; this 
might seem
to fix the proximate problem but would surely create others.  As we've 
done with
expression switch and patterns, we'd rather rehabilitate `switch` than 
an almost-but-not-quite-the-same variant.)

Let's start with the null pattern, which we'll spell for sake of exposition
`case null`.  What if you were allowed to say `case null` in a switch, 
and the
switch would do the obvious thing?

switch (o) {
     case null -> System.out.println("Ugh, null");
     case String s -> System.out.println("Yay, non-null: " + s);

Given that the `case null` appears so close to the `switch`, it does not 
confusing that this switch would match `null`; the existence of `case 
null` at
the top of the switch makes it pretty clear that this is intended 
behavior.  (We
could further restrict the null pattern to being the first pattern in a 
to make this clearer.)

Now, let's look at the other end of the switch -- the last case.  What 
if the
last pattern is a total pattern?  (Note that if any `case` has a total 
it _must_ be the last one, otherwise the cases after that would be dead, 
would be an error.)  Is it also reasonable for that to match null?  
After all,
we're saying "everything":

switch (o) {
     case String s: ...
     case Object o: ...

Under this interpretation, the switch-refactoring anomaly above goes away.

The direction we're going here is that if we can localize the 
null-acceptance of
switches in the first (is it `case null`?) and last (is it total?) 
cases, then
the incremental complexity of allowing _some_ switches to accept null 
might be
outweighed by the incremental benefit of treating `null` more uniformly (and
thus eliminating the refactoring anomalies.)  Note also that there is no 
code compatibility issue; this is all mental-model compatibility.

So far, we're suggesting:

  - A switch with a constant `null` case  will accept nulls;
  - If present, a constant `null` case must go first;
  - A switch with a total (any) case matches also accepts nulls;
  - If present, a total (any) case must go last.

#### Relocating the problem

It might be more helpful to view these changes as not changing the 
behavior of
`switch`, but of the `default` case of `switch`.  We can equally well 
the current behavior as:

  - `switch` always accepts `null`, but matching the `default` case of a 
    throws `NullPointerException`;
  - any `switch` without a `default` case has an implicit do-nothing 

If we adopt this change of perspective, then `default`, not `switch`, is in
control of the null rejection behavior -- and we can view these changes as
adjusting the behavior of `default`.  So we can recast the proposed 
changes as:

   - Switches accept null;
   - A constant `null` case will match nulls, and must go first;
   - A total switch (a switch with a total `case`) cannot have a 
`default` case;
   - A non-total switch without a `default` case gets an implicit do-nothing
     `default` case;
   - Matching the (implicit or explicit) default case with a `null` operand
     always throws NPE.

The main casualty here is that the `default` case does not mean the same
thing as `case var x` or `case Object o`.  We can't deprecate `default`, but
for pattern switches, it becomes much less useful.

#### What about method (declared) patterns?

So far, we've declared all patterns, except the `null` constant pattern 
and the
total (any) pattern, to not match `null`.  What about patterns that are
explicitly declared in code?  It turns out we can rule out these matching
`null` fairly easily.

We can divide declared patterns into three kinds: deconstruction 
patterns (dual
to constructors), static patterns (dual to static methods), and instance
patterns (dual to instance methods.)  For both deconstruction and instance
patterns, the match target becomes the receiver; method bodies are never
expected to deal with the case where `this == null`.

For static patterns, it is conceivable that they could match `null`, but 
would put a fairly serious burden on writers of static patterns to check for
`null` -- which they would invariably forget, and many more NPEs would 
(Think about writing the pattern for `Optional.of(T t)` -- it would be
overwhelmingly likely we'd forget to check the target for nullity.)  SO 
is a strong argument to simply say "declared patterns never match null", to
not put writers of such patterns in this situation.

So, only the top and bottom patterns in a switch could match null; if 
the top
pattern is not `case null`, and the bottom pattern is not total, then 
the switch
throws NPE on null, otherwise it accepts null.

#### Adjusting instanceof

The remaining anomaly we had was about unrolling nested patterns when 
the inner
pattern is total.  We can plug this by simply outlawing total patterns in

This may seem like a cheap trick, but it makes sense on its own.  If the
following statement was allowed:

if (e instanceof var x) { X }

it would simply be confusing; on the one hand, it looks like it should 
match, but on the other, `instanceof` is historically null-hostile.  
And, if the
pattern always matches, then the `if` statement is silly; it should be 

var x = e;

since there's nothing conditional about it.  So by banning "any" 
patterns on the
RHS of `instanceof`, we both avoid a confusion about what is going to 
and we prevent the unrolling anomaly.

For reasons of compatibility, we will have to continue to allow

if (e instanceof Object) { ... }

which succeeds on all non-null operands.

We've been a little sloppy with the terminology of "any" vs "total"; 
note that

Point p;
if (p instanceof Point(var x, var y)) { }

the pattern `Point(var x, var y)` is total on `Point`, but not an "any" 
-- it still doesn't match on p == null.

On the theory that an "any" pattern in `instanceof` is silly, we may 
also want
to ban other "silly" patterns in `instanceof`, such as constant 
patterns, since
all of the following have simpler forms:

if (x instanceof null) { ... }
if (x instanceof "") { ... }
if (i instanceof 3) { ... }

In the first round (type patterns in `instanceof`), we mostly didn't 
this issue, saying that `instanceof T t` matched in all the cases where
`instanceof T` would match.  But given that the solution for `switch` relies
on "any" patterns matching null, we may wish to adjust the behavior of
`instanceof` before it exits preview.

[patternmatch]: pattern-match.html

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